Was it just me or was it a little more crowded last week? So how do we get there each week?
There are some who might take a cynical attitude and think there is nothing that can be said or done on these days to get people to consider coming back, but you and I should realize much can be done. Maybe we just need to think outside the box.
Take, for instance, the diocese of Phoenix. Not too long ago, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, along with others, decided to exercise their vocation of being fishers of men and plant mustard seeds. And so, they turned to the media, and showered local TV stations with commercials inviting people to come back to the Catholic Church. They also set up a special web site, catholicscomehome.org, which features information on the Church and various testimonials of people who returned to the faith. (Just recently I saw an ad featuring Lou Holtz on ESPN.)
Thousands of inactive Catholics have come back to the Church in that diocese thanks to the TV campaign. As far as the web site, it has gotten millions of hits from all 50 states and 80 countries. Mass attendance across the diocese went up 12% over the year after the launch.
The question I’d invite us to ponder as we continue to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection is how do we understand what it is we do around this altar every week? Why is it that we are here? Why does Mass matter so much? How do we spread that message with the world?
For one, it opens our eyes to the Body of Christ. The Easter story reminded us again of how much God loves us; we live this out each time we are at Mass. We can’t hold onto the physical body of Christ as Thomas does in our Gospel today, but Christ gave us the gift of His Church, and the Sacraments to help us deepen our relationship with Him. If we really say “yes” and want to respond to that love, we have to share in the most intimate experience of self-giving there is that Jesus gives to us, and that is Holy Communion. This gives us grace, and brings us closer to God. But in that act, we also recognize Jesus in our brothers and sisters who share that meal with us. Holy Communion isn’t just some representation of Jesus; it is the Body and Blood, the Soul and Divinity of our Lord made present on that altar. Christ himself becomes our nourishment, and it deepens our connection with Him. But it also deepens our connection with one another. We come together to share the Body and Blood of our Lord around this table, and right before that we have the sign of peace. It’s more than just an opportunity to give the person in the pew next to you a handshake. It’s a sign that reminds us of how we are connected to each other, and as Saint John Paul II said, it reminds of “of the commitment to mutual love which is made in sharing the one bread.”
Secondly, while God loves us all equally, we each respond in to that love differently. The more we go to Mass, the more we can develop habits that make ourselves open to God’s love. The more we receive Jesus, the more we hear the Word proclaimed, and the more we come together in prayer, the better disposed we can be to living out the love of God and bringing it into the world.
Finally, Mass also gives us a chance to let God talk to us. We talk in prayer to God, but we also have to do some listening too. We do this at Mass through the Liturgy of the Word. I’d invite you to do your best to pay attention to the lector and listen to the words being proclaimed and reflect upon how God may be talking to you. And when we pray the Eucharistic prayer, it is our prayer, all of us together. We pray “through Christ our Lord” because it is the prayer of Christ united with His Body, the Church. And while we may have heard those words “This is my body…this is my blood…do this in memory of me” so many times, play close attention to them, because that is God speaking to you too. The bread does not just become any flesh. It becomes the flesh of Christ who gave himself up totally for us. The flesh of Christ who gave His life to reveal just how much God truly loves us. And when we hear “do this in memory of me,” we aren’t just challenged to go to Mass but to live out the self-giving love that the Mass celebrates.
Many have looked at this week’s Gospel as a confrontation with doubt, but that misses the mark. Thomas is no doubter. The word “doubt” does not even come into the passage. Let’s not forget Thomas left everything behind to follow Jesus. Thomas was the one who spoke up when Jesus was going to go to Bethany, where there was the threat of Him being killed, and was the only apostle to do so saying “Let us also go to die with him.” And he makes one of the most incredible professions of faith in Scripture: “My Lord and my God.” His eyes see a man; his heart sees his God. Faith comes not from touching, but by Jesus offering himself to the believer. Thomas responds to that by following Jesus and giving His life for the faith.
Jesus has offered Himself to you and me through this beautiful gift we are given in the Church and the sacraments. So much happens at Mass. He offers Himself to you and me continually, and even if at times the love of God can seem far away, know that our religion isn’t about the warm-fuzzie feeling. When those come, when we have the mountaintop experience, that’s wonderful. But even when it doesn’t happen, the love of our God is still there. The challenge for us is to just make sure we don’t throw in the towel and look at doubt and spiritual dryness as signs that God has abandoned us, because He will never leave our side. It can be very easy to fall away from the faith and admittedly, sometimes we won’t have our mind on what is happening on the altar but on the rest of the day or the week ahead. Sometimes the music won’t be that uplifting, and the homily will leave something to be desired. But no matter what, what happens on that altar will happen time and time again until the end of the world: Jesus becoming present, Jesus giving us a sign of His love, and Jesus inviting us to come forward and to have His Body and Blood come into our hearts and souls. Let that love happen by always reminding yourself no matter who you are or where you’ve been, your spot at the table is always ready and waiting for you. Come into the Mass, and embrace it and let it transform you. Don’t just come to punch a clock and fulfill an obligation, but truly let God’s love help make you who have been called to be: someone who, at the end of their journey, will be in heaven in the love of our God forever, with Thomas, not a doubter, but a questioner and a saint.
Have a blessed Easter Season!